Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reading group: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Warning: spoiler.

It's six weeks now since we discussed this book, the 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel set in the American Deep South of the thirties and concerning a lawyer's defence of a black man accused of rape, told from a later perspective in the first-person voice of his daughter Scout who was a small child at the time.

I've been too busy writing to report our discussion, so I doubt that I'll remember much of our comment, but here goes:

Jenny recommended the book because she'd never read it before and felt it was one she should, and as soon as she suggested it there was a general murmur of pleasure: most people remembered it with affection. Personally, I remembered it as rather worthy, as did Mark, although we thought we may have been being influenced by the drama adaptations we'd seen - Mark by the film and I by a stage version. In the event, we all found we liked it very much, and there wasn't in fact a lot of discussion, which, as someone pointed out, often happens when we all like a book. However, people did pick up on one or two points that had given them pause, and the discussion we did have was interesting in that ultimately we unpicked the nature of our pleasure and found it possibly dubious.

We very much loved Scout's viewpoint and voice, which wryly - often comically - recreates the mentality and sometimes incomplete understanding of the child while anatomising a small-town society steeped in racial and class prejudice - and on that level, the level of the prose, Mark and I found that it wasn't worthy after all. We spent some time referring to moments we had really liked, including the laugh-out-loud moment when Scout, dressed as a leg of pork for the school concert, having fallen asleep behind the stage, fails to make her entrance when called and then does so belatedly, and we are told that 'Judge Taylor went out behind the auditorium and stood there slapping his knees so hard Mrs Taylor brought him a glass of water and one of his pills'. People very much appreciated the insight into small-town life of the time and place.

Someone then questioned the relevance, or rather the prominence, of the strand in the novel concerning Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbour: it's a strand with which the novel indeed begins and ends. The children (Scout, her elder brother Jem and their friend Dill), who have never sighted Boo Radley, simultaneously regard him as a bogeyman and are fascinated by him; finally however he rescues Scout and Jem when (just after the hilarious moment described above) Bob Ewell, whose daughter accused the black man of rape, tries to take revenge on their father Atticus by attacking them. I said Boo Radley is meant to stand for the concept of  'the other' which is at the root of racism, but the objection came back: yes, but he isn't black (in fact, since he's never been out he's very, very white!). Someone countered that the novel is about class as well as race prejudice, and Boo Radley stands for the concept of 'the other' in all forms of prejudice. However, there was a sense in the room that we hadn't really resolved the issue.

Someone questioned the character of Atticus, the lawyer: he just seems to be far too reasonable and good to be true; others of us didn't share the objection; personally, I really loved and relished the portrayal. However I did express a doubt which John and I had shared prior to the meeting, regarding Atticus's moral position at the end of the novel. In the struggle with Bob Ewell, Ewell is killed with a knife, and to begin with it seems that thirteen-year-old Jem must have seized the knife off Ewell and killed him. However, Sheriff Tate, who has looked at the body, insists that the evidence shows that Ewell must have fallen on his own knife. Atticus, believing that Tate is covering up to protect Jem, insists, according his moral principles, that Jem must face up to his actions. When he finally realises that it's the highly sensitive Boo Radley whom Tate is covering up for (and who would never be able to withstand any public requirement to account for his action), Atticus gives in and colludes in the deception. John and I weren't sure whether we were happy with the moral ambiguity of that, and John thought it pretty rich that in the book a white man who has killed someone goes free from suspicion while a black man has been hanged for a rape he didn't commit. Doug, however, disagreed, believing that the moral ambiguity was acceptable in the circumstances and precisely the point that the book is making.

I then voiced something I had been mulling: no one in our group is black, and I said I wondered what black people made of the book. Ann, who had been having similar thoughts, said immediately that she thought they would much prefer Toni Morrison's Beloved (which we discussed previously). To Kill a Mockingbird, she said, is how America would like to see itself: upright and reasonable in the face of oppression and prejudice. Atticus, personifying America's view of itself, massages America's conscience. Beloved, on the contrary, exposes the sheer pain of the black experience and thus dramatically challenges America's conscience. I thought this a penetrating insight. Beloved of course takes the black perspective, whereas this book remains firmly with the white, if liberal, perspective. Basically, the reason we had so enjoyed the book was that it had charmed us with its upright white hero and its wry prose that can only emerge from a fundamental position of comfort, and this, from our present-day perspective, brings into question the radical nature of the book.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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